My first encounter with HIV was a copy of the book And the Band Played On. My dad handed it to me, wordlessly, one day in our suburban kitchen. I was still in high school, and we hadn’t talked about the spectrum of my gayness just yet, or at least not in words, although it sat on every dinner plate and dollhouse and stray tile and stair; the subject of queerness in general had only come up sparingly, usually in whispers about neighbors, or unmarried family friends, or the cousins no one had heard from in a minute.
And then there was also this neighborhood across the city, mentioned cryptically in my house, and only ever as the punchline of a joke out in the world: this place called Montrose. Houston’s eponymous gayborhood. If what I’d heard was any indicator, this place was the actual pit of sin, where Mephistopheles himself lived in a garage apartment with two Yorkies, a fuck buddy, and a painted porch.
It was a few more years before I made it there myself. I’d left my parents’ place by then. Didn’t have to sneak around anymore. Queer life in Houston had been otherwise inaccessible for me, raucous and sloppy but highly compartmentalized; if you didn’t know what to look for, you’d simply never find it. And I didn’t know what to look for, but I’d met a guy who did. So one night, in the fall of 2011, we caught a ride to a club on Fairview. The first thing I noticed was that everything hummed. The music from the clubs hummed. The crowds on the concrete hummed. People smoked on the streets, cis women and cis men and trans women and trans men, laughing or brooding or just lurking beside the bars. For the first time in my years in Texas, I could wonder if they were queer with the knowledge that I just might be correct.
But too many nerves were exploding across my stomach. I didn’t step into the club we’d driven down for, or any club at all. I smoked an entire pack of cigarettes on the curb, until my guy asked if I minded if he left, just for a little while, and I told him that was fine. And I was still loafing around, smoking and sweating, when a car slowed down by the stop sign beside me. A pair of black guys leaned through the window of their truck, blasting lazy R&B, and one of them called me beautiful.
It felt like a film. Like something that couldn’t have possibly been my life. I didn’t realize who they were talking to until they’d turned the corner, abandoning the block under the shade of some branches dancing above us.
Whole swathes of Houston are charming at best, sprinkled with strip malls and churches and overgrown parking lots, but Montrose is beautiful in a classical, fantastical way. Shrubs spill from underneath pastel townhouses. The roads bend and form soothing, economical loops. If you take Montrose Boulevard toward the Rice campus, past Richmond Avenue and over Interstate 59, before you hit the rotunda by the museums flanking Main Street, you’ll pass block after block of effervescent homes, crowded but tidy, with porches spilling greenery onto the street.
Houston’s epicenter for queer life got its start in 1911. The neighborhood was organized by an oil baron named J.W. Link, and he lived in a mansion that’s now a part of St. Thomas University, overlooking what was once the neighborhood’s streetcar line. Much like whole swathes of Houston in the mid-1900s, Montrose inflated with Houston’s influx of money — but in lieu of the organized, conservative splendor characterizing the city’s other hubs, the neighborhood became the bayou’s bohemian epicenter by the ’60s. Queer folks and musicians and writers and artists found their way to Montrose. For a while, the living was cheap enough that they didn’t have to leave. Donald Barthelme had a house in the neighborhood. The Rothko Chapel, a nondenominational exhibit curated by Mark Rothko in 1971, and the Menil Collection, a free museum founded by a couple of art collectors in 1987, sit a block apart on Sul Ross Street, giving the neighborhood an internationally recognized sheen.
But there was still room for chaos, the kind you couldn’t find anywhere else in Texas: A little deeper in the neighborhood, beginning around Taft and ending around Crocker, were the blocks of gay bars and clubs lining the roads beneath the jutting tree branches, mostly dormant during the day and popping off into the evening. Some nights, there’s a steam that rises from the bars. Living in a bayou will do that. And it smells a little bit like sex. Or maybe not sex, specifically, but a place where sex could happen — where the exact kind of fucking you are looking for, the sort you couldn’t find anywhere else, is happening. There’s the leather bar and the sports bar and the dancier bar and sex club, but the main thing is the road that sits between them. It’s a road that leads to somewhere, walked by folks who’ve never had that before.
A few years back, the CDC determined that, at the current infection rates, about half of all black men in the US who have sex with men will be infected with HIV in their lifetime. Black people account for a little over 13% of the country’s population, but over half of the country’s new HIV/AIDS cases. Gay and bi black men are overwhelmingly at risk for contracting the virus, and the number is even more exacerbated throughout the South; over half of all new diagnoses in 2017 were here. We have the highest death rate in the US from HIV. We receive less than a quarter of all HIV-related philanthropy in the US annually. Harris, Travis, and Dallas counties have similar infection rates to San Francisco — though, unlike San Francisco, the infections haven’t decreased in recent years. And it goes without saying that, within Houston, Montrose is, by default, a major at-risk area.
Regardless of what you’ve heard, black and brown queers are very much in the midst of an epidemic. Partly because of stigma. Partly because of a lack of access to information. Partly because of a lack of access to services. Partly because of the usual bullshit of living. And then there’s also the human element: The first time I fucked bareback, it was simply a narrative problem.
The other guy lived in Montrose. I’d dropped by on a balmy morning. By this point, a couple more years had passed, and I was well acquainted with the neighborhood. We’d just eaten eggs scrambled softly over toast, or we’d just been about to eat them, and one pleasure had segued into another, and that’s when this guy and I stopped to talk about our lack of contraception, and we actually held our heads in our hands, weighing the improbability of the issue, the absurdity of our shitty luck.
Sex had been nowhere, and then it was everywhere. The problem had inverted itself.
We laughed about it. Poked each other’s stomachs. Tried naming our partners on our fingers — my x to his y — before deciding that nothing would be the harm, because we were both pretty careful, and also what was the worst thing that could possibly happen, after years and years and years of internalized homophobia and sexual violence and self-resentment and depression and anxiety and lack of access, besides actually dying?
We both knew better, in the vague sort of way you know to use mitts when you reach for the pie in the oven. But we still reached anyway. It really was that simple. And at this point, for me, sex had been nowhere, and then it was everywhere. The problem had inverted itself. It became another kind of problem.
The usual sexual racism among gay men loomed over my life — “NO FATS, NO FEMMES, NO BLACKS, NO SPICE, NO RICE” — but its prevalence within Texas and the South at large was one thing, while Montrose was entirely another. You could go there and desire and be desired. The danger implicit within that desiring wouldn’t rear its head until too late. Later, I’d chat with HIV-positive friends, and they’d mention their diagnosis in an offhand way, over donuts or micheladas or tortas or beer, or they’d chalk it up to making up for lost time, or getting lost in the midst of making up for lost time. The result was akin to tripping on your shoelaces mid-sprint.
But knowing and doing are two separate entities, splayed across a chronology eons wide. And the thing about Montrose, the bit that could really sink you, wasn’t something that you needed a comprehensive sociocultural foundation to articulate: The place was simply fun. It was a place where you could, whatever you needed could to look like, for so many folks who’d been told they could not.
The risks incurred felt a little inevitable. A little like the price for admission.
For many months after the Pulse shooting in 2016, a pride flag stood in the center of Montrose Boulevard, between the Burger Joint and the BB’s, a smooth stone’s throw from South Beach. I’d drive to work and I’d see it, and that felt like something. It felt like something to know that other people remembered, and that they would see it and they would have to remember. They’d have to think about the fraughtness of the whole neighborhood. You’d look up and you’d remember that everything could be destroyed in an instant. I’d only ever talked about the shooting with other queer folks, except for a phone call from my mom the morning of, a quick thing. She’d asked if I was all right, and what was I doing, and had I gone out the night before.
The constellation of what makes a queer space is a little nebulous to define. There’s the sex, and that’s important. But it also might just be the gravity. The invisible force that settles everyone else into place. There are other things about Montrose, tiny things, that remind me it’s possible to live a multiplicity of lives: the hooting from the bars on Stanford; the slapping of palms at the center of a joke on Hyde Park; the beginning of a fight on Whitney; the friction of being outside and within a crowd on Hopkins; the crack of beer bottles falling on Crocker; the shriek of a thundering “BITCH!” outside of Blur, with the understanding that the word is not a weapon; scatterings of Spanish; walking past couples by Ripcord, and scatterings of Vietnamese; walking past couples by Eagle; and whispers from one ear to another on the porch of George, not really hearing them but knowing that they’re warm.
One night, after fucking around the neighborhood for entirely too long, I sat down by one of the block’s taco vendors and fell asleep on a bench. When I woke up, the vendor was shutting down, but an older Latina woman, folding napkins on the table, asked how I was doing. I told her I was fine in Spanish, and we immediately switched over. She asked if I was hungry. Told me I should eat. And she said, out of nowhere, that her son was like me — he went out at night in this neighborhood. I said that must have meant I was the worst-case scenario, and she laughed. She said that she always told him to be careful.
And you be careful too, she said, looking up again, handing me a paper plate with chilaquiles and beans.
The idea of Montrose can be even heavier than its physical geography; it might take up more space than its mass of streets and buildings. I’d failed to imagine the neighborhood’s metaphorical weight until after I’d been there, which is something I’m only reminded of after the suicide of another queer black kid, once a (straight) friend tells me that of course it’s sad, but how could this still be happening, with all of the evidence that it gets better?
Some of us don’t have the privilege of forgetting about our mortality.
And of course I could tell the friend that seeing someone else’s happiness doesn’t make yours real. Or I could tell him about my own near misses, thinking about garages as a kid, and who would find me and what that would look like and not feeling any kind of way about it. Or I could tell him how the thought of that silence, more than anything else, made it seem worth it. Or I could tell him that, back then, I couldn’t have envisioned what pleasure could look like, that pleasure could be a harness in a crowded, dark room, or sitting on a stool in a bar with men much larger than me, being the apple that they wanted to take a bite out of, and wanting to be that. I could tell him that the better is a void that simply doesn’t exist until it does.
And that’s all a part of the neighborhood too. Some of us don’t have the privilege of forgetting about our mortality. So maybe the thing that defines Montrose is that you’re surrounded by other people who have to think about their finiteness too — and, for a little while, we just don’t. For a couple of hours, the neighborhood simply lets it slip from our minds.
The day in Montrose that matters most in my life was actually the most mundane: Eventually, I went to a clinic to get tested. It was not a thing that I made a habit of doing. I’d had another a slipup, an accident, although by then my accidents had begun to tally an unforgiving chronology, and the counselor who sat me down made a smirk as I tried to explain that away.
He wore his hair in twists, with skinny jeans and a plaid button-down. He asked why I was really there, and how was I doing. How was I really doing. We talked about the weather, and then his role as an AIDS awareness educator, and then insurance and the lack thereof, and then he said, verbatim, that 1 out of every 2 black queers were on track to get HIV in their lives. He was on PrEP. And there were two of us sitting in the room.
He was gentle when I filled out the paperwork for preventative meds, which were free for me, an otherworldly privilege. I didn’t feel anything. Afterward, he touched my shoulder.
Hey, he said, I care about you. There is at least one other person who cares about you. So you have to take care of yourself for me, okay?
A few months ago, yet another a skyscraper flew up in Montrose. It wasn’t there, and then it was. At this point, the area is a euphemism for the onset of inner Houston’s limping gentrification escalation, mirroring the transformations of gayborhoods across the globe’s nooks and crannies. Depending on the time of year, you’ll catch (straight) couples walking the streets, and nannies with kids, and joggers working through morning routines, weaving along culs-de-sac gridlocked by Allen Parkway and Shepherd and the Southwest Freeway. More than one visiting friend has compared the neighborhood’s seven-block radius to Greenwich Village or the Left Bank or Shimokitazawa or the Castro, before asking, a little incredulously, how the fuck it fit into the rest of the city.
Other local friends have migrated to East End, another neighborhood undergoing its own gentrification crisis. One morning at the gay diner I eat at, my waiter called it “the new Montrose.” On another morning, a colleague at a conference called it “the new grad student ghetto, the way Montrose used to be.” But there are gunshots, said this colleague, which worried her, and I didn’t know whether to tell her that they were probably firecrackers, and that I’d heard them too, watching an outdoor concert in the area the night before. I don’t know whether it’s the noises or the bodies that bother her, black and brown in the same way that, for a little while, Montrose was. But then again, all things considered, a firecracker may as well be a gun in the hands of bodies like ours.
And yet, and yet, and yet. Even still.
A few weekends back, I spent an evening with a friend in Montrose. It had been a few months for me. There’s a mellow swampiness that settles over some Houston neighborhoods between the end of April and the beginning of June. The sidewalks were still choppy as fuck, and we were drunk off cheap beer, and we bobbed against each other like atoms, bouncing lightly, but consistently. We passed through the leather bar. Passed through the dancier bar afterward. We held hands, and then we didn’t, and others around us did the same. The crowds alongside us were leaving and coming and going, or just standing outside, existing, breathing up all of the air and blowing laughter back out. Many were white but mostly they weren’t. Their sizes ranged. There was a fountain spilling over at one bar and some folks playing Jenga behind it. People danced, and they bullshitted, and some of them argued about nothing. A gaggle of trans women settled into laughter at some tables behind us, and when one of the ladies in their group left, another woman said: She took me to these bars for the first time. I didn’t know nothing before then. I didn’t know shit about any of you bitches, and then she brought me and now we’re here.
Eventually, my friend and I left that bar too. We walked. Taco trucks lingered beside buildings, and we crisscrossed through the crowds beside them. By then, it was a little past 1 a.m., and we were approached by a black dude and two other people. One of them was his sister, and the other one was her boyfriend. The boyfriend gave us a card for his barbershop. The sister said they’d just moved from Michigan and that her brother was showing them around.
This is nice, she said. I didn’t know what to expect. But this is nice.
A chill had set in. It wasn’t nearly as swampy as earlier. The woman’s brother hugged my friend and me, and then he said, I’m glad you’re here. We thanked him. He thanked us. It wasn’t clear what we were thanking each other for, but that didn’t even matter, because we both knew. It didn’t need to be qualified. And the guy gave us both a kiss on the cheek before he let go, and then he caught up with his people — he vanished, turning the corner. And then we turned a different corner after them, and then we were gone, at least for a little while, until the neighborhood claimed us again. ●
Bryan Washington is a writer from Houston. His first collection of stories, Lot, is available from Riverhead Books.